Priya Gupta: Doctor of Lasers
IIT Bombay graduate. Doctor of Lasers. New mom. Google spouse.
Okay the Google spouse thing isn’t in itself cool, but that’s how I met Priya. Within minutes of meeting Priya three years ago, I wanted to be her friend. She’s a tech lady in the hardcore-est of ways: a Doctor of Lasers. LASERS, people. For those of you unfamiliar with lasers, consider that, unlike many areas of tech, Priya’s day to day work typically involves tools that can burn your fingers off or cause you to go blind. There are few engineers that venture into lasers, and even fewer who are women (<10% in the field, by Priya’s estimates). Fortunately, Priya is used to being the odd non-man out.
Priya’s engineering career started in late high school. Before that, she wanted to become a medical doctor, but that would have required her to drop math midway through school. Nonplussed about stopping math, Priya decided engineering would be a better fit: “I just knew I wanted to work with lasers”. She focused on getting to IIT, the most prestigious school in India and has possibly the most competitive entrance standards. Coming from an all-girls school, it wasn’t until Priya started college at IIT that she noticed anything unusual. In her words: “I was the martian coming in; only girl in a class of 19. There were lots of stares”. When asked if she felt intimidated, it sure doesn’t seem like it: “I intimidated the guys”.
Right on, girl.
In addition to the usual challenges of getting into the world’s most competitive engineering school, Priya had to contend with a family that was less than enthused about her plan. Coming from a conservative family where arranged marriages were the norm, Priya’s family worried that going to IIT would make her “too educated”. “I was already too tall”, she points out. And in the words of one of her aunts: “She’ll be 22 – who will want to marry her then?!”. Fortunately, her parents were supportive, and ran effective defense.
Priya made it to IIT Bombay out of hundreds of thousands of applicants. She entered the Engineering Physics B. Tech program, and of the 420 students admitted to IIT Bombay that year, Priya says about 20 of them were women – less than 5%. What’s more, in Priya’s experience about half of the men in her class had never interacted with a woman their own age. As a result, Priya dealt with a lot of awkwardness, even by typical women in tech standards: “I was excluded from social outings because the guys felt they couldn’t behave in a relaxed way with a woman present”. Even worse, there was a classmate who developed an obsession with her. Priya documented the harassment, submitting emails to the dean, who in turn took action against the harasser. While this resolved the harassment, Priya feels that many of the guys in her class blindly sided with the creepy guy.
Undeterred, Priya graduated with her B. Tech and turned her sights to the US, which was the natural career path for students looking to work in research. Priya chose the PhD program at Rice University in Houston and was the first member of her whole family to move to the US. Initially, she was concerned that the gender imbalance at Rice would mean similar issues with her male colleagues to what she faced at IIT. The guys she worked with turned out to be completely respectful. What’s more, she met a handsome American gentleman at Rice who persuaded Priya to marry him over the course of 5 or 6 years (sources on the timeline differ). Probably not what the aunties back in India had in mind, but at least they found a match for the tall over-educated girl.
Priya has faced additional challenges since graduating from Rice. In her first job, she was routed into a marketing position even though she was clear that she wanted a research position. She was pressured by the employer to try out marketing anyways, and she wound up being very successful in the role. Regardless of her success, Priya wanted a research job, and she eventually found a startup building analysis tools for greenhouse gases: “I was employee #15 and I loved it! I was happy to be doing research”. The role was exactly what Priya wanted – she worked on the company’s new signature product that increased company sales by two orders of magnitude. “Customers were very happy”, Priya says proudly. But organizationally, the company was a disaster. As the company grew, Priya says that she felt more and more marginalized: “I was the only female in science or research, I was also 10 years younger than everyone”. When I asked her why she put up with it, she confessed: “I should have left, but I’m not a quitter, and I was emotionally attached to the product”. Priya did her best to handle the harassment effectively through HR, but says they discouraged her from making any complaints that would require serious legal action. She focused on her technical work for a few more months, and was eventually laid off with a good severance package. She admits she could have taken the dismissal to court, but the effort and the potential damage to her career was not worth the potential money she could have won.
Since leaving her last company over 2 years ago, Priya has not gone back to work full-time,. She and her husband Ben had their first child, Rahi, and Priya has taken this time to reevaluate what she wants out of her career. She certainly has no shortage of options as she has had a consistent stream of job offers since leaving her previous company, and recently had a part time contract job at an early-stage start up. As a mom in the Bay Area, she’s found that she finally has a chance to meet a lot of other technical women: “I know so many other moms, and the Bay Area is a really cool place where the moms are lawyers or scientists”. Right now, Priya is enjoying motherhood and plans on doing so for another few years before returning to the work force. Originally, this made her nervous: “who’s going to hire me after being away 5 years?”. But she has since seen several colleagues (men, actually) take similar breaks and come back to work without any problems. While Priya has faced some tough challenges in her career, they are challenges that many women will face some point in their careers. In Priya’s case, her choice to work in tech has given her the power to work elsewhere under terms of her own choosing.
On a much lighter note, what’s playing at Priya’s dance party? “Desi Girl”*, of course.
*Desi: Slang term for the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia and, increasingly, to the people, cultures, and products of their diaspora [Wikipedia]